At the end of the first half of the season, Michigan looked like a long shot to make the NCAA tournament, let alone advance to its 25th Frozen Four appearance.
The team was the second-youngest in Division I hockey and was adjusting to a new head coach following the departure of Red Berenson, who spent 33 years on the bench.
The Wolverines finished the 2016-17 season with just six conference wins and, by the end of December 2017, Michigan was 7-7-2 and seemed to be on track to finish sixth in the Big Ten, as predicted in the preseason coaches poll.
“I’m really fortunate to be surrounded by a great group of players who didn’t believe in all the preseason polls and have worked extremely hard to get to this point,” said Mel Pearson, the first-year head coach who worked beside Berenson at Michigan for 22 years. “Obviously, we’re the underdog in the tournament, and we’re just happy to be there and it’s bonus hockey for us now.”
For the Wolverines to make it to college hockey’s bonus round, they needed to improve every aspect of their game after midseason. Even more importantly, they needed to coalesce and play as a unit.
That’s exactly what the team did, starting with a home-and-home series against its Frozen Four semifinal opponent, Notre Dame, the first weekend in January. Michigan dropped both of those games but the Wolverines improved as a squad in that series.
“We played extremely well in both of those games and I think at that point, I could see the promise in our team that we had,” said Pearson. “It started with Hayden Lavigne, who started playing extremely well in goal. And from that weekend on, I think we’ve only lost four games, so the guys really came together and bonded.”
Pearson said that after midseason, the team was settling into the coaching changes: “I think that was the turning point for us, really.”
In the past, Michigan teams have been known for their explosive offense and depth up front that can seem insurmountable. With such a youthful roster this season, though, the Wolverines depended on a single line of veteran players through the first 16 games to keep them in the hunt.
The line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody — dubbed the “Run DMC Line” — is responsible for 51 of Michigan’s 133 overall goals so far this season.
“We had the one good line and we rode that line,” said Pearson. “And that line really pulled us through the first half and gave us a chance to get some other guys.”
Even though Michigan’s offense is the sixth-best in Division I men’s hockey, the Wolverines have four players who have scored 10 or more goals this season. With 15 goals, sophomore Jake Slaker is the fourth in addition to Dancs, Calderone and Marody.
With the exception of the team’s two goaltenders, every Wolverines skater has tallied at least one goal this season.
Defensively, Michigan is 34th in the nation, a statistic that may not bode well for a young team heading into the Frozen Four, but Pearson is confident in his defensive core.
“We have some high-end players, and it all starts with Joe Cecconi and Quinn Hughes,” said Pearson. “They do log a lot of minutes. They’ll play between 25 and 30 minutes, I’m sure, on Thursday. What makes them so good is that they’re so good defensively, but at the same time, they’re very good offensively. They possess the puck and can really control it, but we have some other guys that have played extremely well.”
Pearson points to senior captain Sam Piazza — “The only senior back there and [who] gives us leadership, so we’ve got a very solid core” — and drafted players like Nicholas Boka and Luke Martin.
Pearson said that the most important factor for this young and rather unlikely national contender is the team’s chemistry. “That’s something you can’t buy. You can’t go down to the corner store and buy chemistry. You don’t get it in the bottom of your box of Lucky Charms. It has to developed, and I think that was something that was really important that came together in the second half.”